French

HASHISH BY OSCAR SCHMITZ

I had spent the day in Montmartre cemetery looking for Lautreamont’s grave, which, I was later informed, rightly or wrongly, is unmarked and therefore impossible to find. Certainly, I did not find it, much to the amusement, I felt, of the black cats and crows that populate the place. In any case, several hours after leaving, while I was sitting in a bar planning a trip to the catacombes des Paris the following day, I was approached by a beautiful woman. Her name, it transpired, was Justyna. She was, she told me, an artist, newly arrived in the city from Poland, and this night, like all recent nights, she was drinking alone. The particulars of our conversation are not important, except to say that we got on well enough for the evening to conclude back at her small flat. Once there, she asked me if I smoked, and without waiting for an answer produced a large quantity of what I took to be cannabis. ‘I have been saving this for a special occasion,’ she said.

In truth, I am not a cannabis smoker, having tried it once or twice and been unimpressed by its effects; but I did not have the heart to admit this to Justyna, whose loneliness and eagerness touched me, and whose supreme attractiveness was, to be frank, directing much of my behaviour. She did not know how to roll, so I took on the responsibility myself. Not having had much experience with this particular drug, I stuffed the cigarette papers full of it, such that the end result was a tumorous-looking thing; a child’s attempt at a papier-mâché head; in short, a monstrous joint that, by appearance alone, boded ill. Moreover, I found that, once I had lit it, my host took barely a puff and left the greater part of it to me. It wasn’t until I laid down on the bed that the visions began. The ceiling appeared to be falling in on me. Justyna, by this time, was working on taking my jeans off. I did not want, nor was in any fit state, to prevent her. I was, in fact, almost paralysed. Her task completed, she jumped on top of me, grinding her crotch into mine; and ordinarily I would have been pleased at this turn of events, but I was rather distracted by the demons.

I did not sleep at all that night, and Justyna, to her disappointment and mine, did not get what she wanted either. My penis, like the rest of my body, was elsewhere; in another dimension, another world, another reality, featuring demons and skulls, black cats and crows, and a room that was shrinking to the proportions of a coffin. Yet, for the most part, I had forgotten about this incident, it being swallowed up, so to speak, in the bigger drama of a cancelled flight and a difficult journey back to England. That is, until I started reading Hashish by Oscar Schmitz. It begins with a chance encounter between the narrator and Count Vittorio Alta-Carrara. The latter invites the former to attend a soirée of sorts, at a ‘hashish club,’ where men in oriental dress lounge around on cushions amidst hookahs and bowls of incense. It has been suggested that Hashish is one of the earliest examples of ‘drug lit’, which, although it strikes me as a nonsense term, has become a kind of genre of its own. Whether that claim is accurate I can’t say, but Schmitz’s work is surprisingly direct and modern in its approach to drug use, and it does capture some of what it is like to take certain substances, which is to say that the narrator’s experience chimes with my own.

‘There was barely a stir as we entered,’ Schmitz wrote, which indicates a drug-induced lethargy amongst the attendees of the club. Likewise, the narrator states, amusingly, that he would gladly do good for others providing that he could remain ‘stretched out on the divan.’ There is, when using some drugs at least, an accompanying sensation of well-being, and subsequent desire to accomplish great things, without having, of course, the necessary wherewithal to do so. This is why pot smokers are often simultaneously described as dreamers and wasters; they are, for all their fine intentions, ‘pointlessly wasting in false sensations.’ A further example of this is the feeling that, when high, one is seeing the world as it really is, that one is experiencing the ‘true colour of life,’ that drugs can ‘clear away the inhibited conceptions of an often unbidden practical intellect.’ Yet the unfortunate truth is that drugs are not a gateway to reality, they are an escape from it, for better or worse. To this end, the worse end, Schmitz also wrote about the visions, the hallucinations, and the terror that can lead a man to long for ‘sober responsibilities.’

When I first encountered Hashish, the synopsis on the publisher’s website gave the impression that it is a gothic novel in the decadent tradition, which means a combination of ghoulishness and moral decay. And on the surface it is that. The drugs are part of it, of course, and the dandyish Count. There is some depravity, and a stab at getting an orgy going, and so on. I was promised necrophilia and cannibalism, and perhaps I was high myself throughout my reading, but I somehow missed all that; but there is certainly dark doorways, hideous masks, incubi and succubi, and, praise be, a lashing of Satanism. However, although it is fun to linger over this sort of thing, I must return to the theme of the nature of reality, because that, for me, is the heart of Schmitz’s work, and it is that which gives it depth. In the first, and best, story told to the narrator at the club a man is sent a mysterious letter inviting him to a rendezvous with a woman. She claims to be aware of his extreme ugliness and therefore, although eager to meet, doesn’t want to be able to see him. The man agrees and soon takes the woman as his lover.

What is most engaging about this story is not the surface action, the promise of adventure, the Dumas-like cloak and dagger liaison, but what happens psychologically to the couple in the dark. What they find, the man in particular, is that the other person becomes their anything and everything. The darkness strips them of their true identity, and in its place they can take on any identity that it pleases their lover to give them. The woman, in fact, imagines the man to be Satan, while he, rather more quixotically, embraces ‘queens once desired but unapproachable’ and ‘the lovers of my boyhood dreams.’ In this way, much like a drug experience, but far more beautiful and moving, at least for me personally, one sees the mixing of the real and the unreal, of dreams and actuality, of the senses and the imagination. Indeed, the sorry climax of this tale is brought about when reality becomes the dominant factor, when it crushes the imagination, when, to be specific, the couple lay eyes on each other for the first time. In concluding in this manner I do not think that Schmitz was advocating a life of fantasy, either by means of drug use or any other, but that he was trying to say something about what it is to be human, to be entombed in the ordinary, whilst always striving towards something rarer and more wonderful.

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ILL SEEN ILL SAID BY SAMUEL BECKETT

As the sky goes black, suddenly black, and the snow drifts up into the air, I think of her. Of mum. My mum. Cancer-riddled, near death, near end, near black. Small and misshapen, she moves like a insect, injured, legs missing on one side only. Graceless, my mother, like an insect near death. Old, too old, too ill. Her hair once red, now gone, no more. She was mad before, in years gone by, for years until now. Now sane, seems sane. No more fire or fight, in her. As the sky goes black, and the snow rises from the earth, I think of mother, whose body, which is failing, has failed, was previously strong enough to push me out into the world. Her body, which for nine months sustained her son, which kept him alive, can no longer sustain her own self. At night, I wonder, as she lays down in darkness, at night, does she consider it certain, her life, her waking, in a few hours time? No, I’d say. No complacency, I’d say. No more of that. She is pure present, pure pain, no doubt, at least at times. The rest, at rest, she rests, with death.

“Already all confusion. Things and imaginings. As of always. Confusion amounting to nothing. Despite precautions. If only she could be pure figment. Unalloyed. This old so dying woman. So dead. In the madhouse of the skull and nowhere else. Where no more precautions to be taken. No precautions possible. Cooped up there with the rest. Hovel and stones. The lot. And the eye. How simple all then. If only all could be pure figment. Neither be nor been nor by any shift to be. Gently gently. On. Careful.”

As the sky goes black, no, no sky, nor snow, no more of that. An introduction is all it was. A way of getting here, wherever this is. No mother, either. Move on. Thought and feeling rising from the earth, no. Move on. In my room, afraid of the cold outside, afraid of the world outside, of them, of another them. Yes, that, or maybe that, in some way, to some degree, but I ought to avoid complications. In any case, I wanted to read, or reread, something by Samuel Beckett. First Molloy. In my room, I read, reread, then stop. For days I read, and reread, and stop, more often stop. Not for difficulty, no, but for a breath, to breathe. Molloy I see is more beautiful than I remember. Before, all I noticed was the humour. Or at least that’s all I could remember, from before. Yet still I stop, full stop, and move on to another. I have defended The Unnamable, passionately, to myself more often than not. Who else do I know who has read it? There is none. I read, and reread, and so on, and I like it, just as much as I thought I did, but still I stop, of course. Of course, I stop, otherwise this would be something else. The title at the top of the page is clear.

Maybe it was the snow, which I will not mention again. Maybe it was the stillness that rose from the earth. Maybe it was mother, who I will not mention again. I don’t know. Something drew me to this, specifically this, to Ill Seen Ill Said. For the third time. Or the fourth. I cannot be accurate on this point. I was drawn to it, not as I was drawn those other times, that is all. Move on. It is usually published with two others, as Nohow On. A trilogy, which isn’t a trilogy, after all. Ill fitting. Nothing links them, except the obvious, to which I will return. A matter of convenience, then. Beckett’s late prose pieces, as they are often called, and because late, near last, it is said that they are the toughest, the most obscure. That isn’t the case, or not for me, at least. No genius, I, either. The other trilogy, yes, The Unnamable, specifically, yes, although even those all are readable, re-readable, comprehensible. For me, to me, at least. Beckett’s style, as his life drew to a close, was one of clarity, simplicity, minimalism. His sentences, you might say, grew shorter, as the life left to him grew shorter also. They dwindled as he dwindled.

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I promised I would return, and so it is. There is no escaping it. Say it, say what? Death, the bastard death. There is no escape. The book begins: from where she lies. Already you know; you know, if you didn’t already, from that. She lies, because movement is difficult. Down on her knees especially she finds it hard not to remain so forever. Such helplessness. She’s old, of course; of course, she’s old. So old, so frail, so close to the void, that her steps in the snow, hers not mine, her snow not mine, leave barely a trace. Perhaps that – old age and the approach of death – is the reason why she spends so much of her time at the window, watching Venus rise. It is beautiful, bright, and permanent, unlike she. Venus, the goddess of love and beauty. Is there a better way to live your last? I don’t know. The woman understands, it seems, her situation. She is ‘beyond surprise.’ Beyond because experienced and wise, perhaps, because resigned, perhaps. Or is she so because mad, because she doesn’t understand? Things and imaginings. As of always. Confusion amounting to nothing. The mind decays with the body. I will return to that. At the window then, passively, only because she cannot easily be elsewhere? I don’t know.

All of this is familiar, so far. Beckett, on death on dying. No new ground. Wonderfully executed, but new? No. The woman, a woman. Yes, of course, there is that, but gender at this stage, in this state, what matters that? Whether she or Molloy or Malone, no matter. The woman in her cabin, in a ‘formless place.’ Ok. Meagre pastures; stones increasingly abound. Ok. There was once clover. Ok. The woman living amongst ruin. This all strikes one as straightforward enough. The environment mirroring her state. Suggesting, you might say, also neglect, for she is alone. Withered crocuses. Fine. Ok. And the snow. Formless too, and white. A kind of void. Cold like death. Yet strictly speaking she isn’t alone. There are the animals, which come and go, as you would expect, and the men. Twelve men. Always in the distance, receding, circling, perhaps watching. Are they real? She is, we have established already, quite possibly mad. And her eyes ill see, without question. An illusion of men? There is a train of thought, which I would like to dismiss almost without mention, that they are the twelve disciples and the woman, the Virgin. Be that the case, or not, I find no great evidence for it, and even less enthusiasm.

The men, the twelve, why twelve, I don’t know. The men for me, putting aside the number, for I cannot explain it, are the others, the rest, the world, the truly living, at a distance, shadowy, indistinct, disappearing. Ghostly, in a word. One thinks of the dead, or dying, as the ghost, but to the dead, or dying, it is they, the others. The ethereal atmosphere, now that I am warming to my subject, is the reason that I love Ill Seen Ill Said as much as I do. I rate it, I should say, or I will anyway, higher than most, the highest, almost. For this reason. It is what sets it apart, from the rest of Beckett’s work. There are throughout repeated references to white. The snow, again. The stones. The lamb. The moon. Her hair, her hands. The rest of Beckett’s novels, no matter how absurd, all feel grounded in the real, in the world, our world. Yet this one is otherworldly. It exists in a misty dimension, between life and death. It’s great, and moving, beauty isn’t only in its style, but in its setting and atmosphere also.

MONSIEUR VENUS BY RACHILDE

‘I’m always the man,’ she sighed. ‘It would be nice to be able to be the woman for once.’ It was our second meeting, and I was already sure that she was dangerous. From the beginning, I had noticed how a terrible warmth, which in other circumstances might actually have been charming, spread over her face whenever she thought she had upset me or fingered a sore spot. Later, when she felt more at ease, and more certain of my compliance, she openly dictated to me, issuing threats of violence, or some other form of recrimination, as my motivation. Very quickly, I extricated myself from this situation. Indeed, I spent much of the small number of weeks that the relationship lasted plotting a safe exit; but, in terms of the book under review here, what I find most interesting now is how it was evident that she saw relationships in terms of control and power, and, more specifically, that she equated masculinity with brutishness and dominance. She never outright said the words, but I got the impression that, as she continued her role as the ‘man’, she saw me as, or tried to make me into, her idea of a ‘woman.’

“A very special case. A few years more, and that pretty creature who you love too much, I think, will, without ever loving them, have known as many men as there are beads on her aunt’s rosary. No happy medium! Either a nun or a monster! God’s bosom or sensual passions! It would, perhaps, be better to put her in a convent, since we put hysterical women in the Saltpetriere! She does not know vice, she invents it!”

Monsieur Venus was published in 1884, and, as with almost everything I read these days, was then banned [this time in Belgium] when it was judged to be pornographic. Moreover, it begins with a preface that states: we warn readers that at the very moment they are cutting these first pages the heroine of our story is perhaps going past their front door. All of which threatens, or appears to promise, depending on your attitude towards this sort of thing, sinister or unsettling content. Moreover, that preface specifically suggests that the female lead will be something of a monster, or certainly someone of whom one ought to be afraid. Indeed, the word ‘monster’ is used more than once in the text to describe Mlle de Venerande, and on one occasion she is even likened to the Devil. While, in terms of decadent French literature, what she does is rather tame, it’s fair to say that some of her actions could be said to justify the terms applied to her. In short, Raoule, as she is referred to throughout most of the book, falls for, pays for, and then systematically dominates and feminizes a young man, who, ultimately, she has killed. 

I’ve seen it written that Monsieur Venus is a forward-thinking novel in the way that it engages with the currently hot topics of gender roles and gender fluidity. Raoule, for example, does not simply take the name of a man, she also dresses as one, and acts like one. In the language of today, one would say that she is a woman, in biological terms, who identifies as a man; and others see her in this way too. Raoule’s aunt calls her niece her ‘nephew’ and even her suitor, the mustachioed hussar M. de Raittolbe, plays along, speaking to her, and behaving towards her, as though she is ‘one of the boys.’ Conversely, her object of affection, Jacques Silvert, is associated with typically feminine activities or qualities. His entrance into the novel is as a man surrounded by flowers, and his first sentence is to introduce himself as Marie [who is, in fact, his sister]. His physical appearance is described as ‘thickset at the hips’, with slim ankles and straight legs.  

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You will have noticed that in the preceding paragraph I wrote about ‘feminine activities’ and masculine behaviour as though these things are fixed, and I would like to point out that these ideas about gender are not mine. They are taken from the text, and sometimes from the mouths of the characters. In this way, it would seem that Monsieur Venus isn’t as enlightened, or ahead of its time, as some commentators would have you believe. To be a ‘man’ in Rachilde’s world is to smoke, to fence, to take and jilt lovers, to have short hair, and, most significantly, to dominate a ‘woman’, often in violent and brutish ways. Likewise, Jacques paints flowers, simpers, pouts, cries, is indolent, and so on. He also allows himself to be kept. In short, both characters are little more than outdated gender stereotypes, only with the roles reversed. To identify as another sex must not, surely, mean simply to take on the most negative behaviours and attitudes associated with that sex, but that is how it is presented here.

For me, to concentrate on gender fluidity when discussing Monsieur Venus is a mistake, for what it is really about is power and control. This is demonstrated throughout the novel in a number of ways. There is, first of all, the physical, emotional, and mental control exerted by Raoule over Jacques. He is frequently compared to a child, while she is clearly more mature [she is literally older, although that is by-the-by]. As with all bullies, Raoule does not go after a strong personality, such as M. de Raittolbe, but rather she targets the weak and vulnerable. Secondly, there is the power of money and class. Jacques is, to put it simply, very poor and Raoule is exceedingly rich; he is the son of a whore, and she of noble birth. Both characters, but especially Jacques, are ever conscious of the class and financial divide between them. He is in awe of her position in society, which naturally makes him her inferior, one that is expected to be compliant; while she is only able, at least initially, to control her lover, to even make him her lover, by paying for him.

However, while I remain convinced that Monsieur Venus does not have anything truly meaningful to say about gender fluidity, or homosexuality or bisexuality [both of which are hinted at, but never explicitly explored], I do think it touches upon something interesting with regards to what it was like to be a woman at the time. Not a lot is made of it, but Rachilde suggests that Raoule behaves the way that she does, that she takes on the role that she does, because she is frightened of being, or being seen as, vulnerable herself. This feeling of vulnerability is heightened when she falls in love, for to be in love is to lay oneself bare, is to give up, or have taken away, some of the power one has over oneself. Therefore, her actions, her transformation, could be seen in a different light. One might argue that Raoule makes herself one of the boys, even going so far as to mistreat her ‘mistress,’ so that the boys will identify with, and not mistreat, her. It is, in this way, a form of self-defence. She acts like a man to prevent herself from being treated like a woman.

THE SHE DEVILS BY PIERRE LOUYS

Of all the women I have met, and fucked, since I became single, since I lost my love, Rachel had perhaps the best heart. Yet I treated her terribly. I say I lost my love, but that isn’t true. I still had it. I treated Rachel terribly because it was now all mine, and no longer shared. But that isn’t the real point of interest, not this time. Rachel was training to be a doctor and when we fucked she would explain the process, would break it down for me, medically. She spoke about her ‘vulva’ and my ‘glans,’ and I would cringe. She would happily swallow my come and then seek to enlighten me as to why it didn’t taste bad or, to be specific, like anything much at all. [A rare occurrence, apparently, that means the lack of something in my system; a situation that might indicate I have cancer]. Her sex talk was so clinical that it was profoundly unsexy; and it made me realise that the acts in which we engage are not everything, that the purely physical isn’t the whole of it, and that language and narrative are important too.

“Despite the fact that my sexual exercises are ordinarily as reserved and conservative as my language, my moral scruples do not go so far as to prevent me from fucking a mother on top of her daughter and then deflowering the same daughter on top of her mother.”

The She Devils was written in 1910 by Pierre Louys, who was, according to wikipedia, made a Chevalier and then an Officer of the Légion d’honneur for his contributions to French literature. However, the book wasn’t published until the 1950s and then, unsurprisingly, only under a pseudonym. I have read a lot of sexually explicit, or so-called erotic, novels recently but I have never before had an experience such as I had with this. It is, to put my cards on the table, the only book that has got close to arousing me. This had something to do with the content of course – although I would like to point out that not everything in it excited me, some of it even disturbed me – but was more about the presentation of that content. What I have found is that, generally speaking, this kind of writing is approached in a Rachel-like manner, which is to say that it is too anatomical; or, and this is equally off-putting, there is sometimes an attempt at imbuing the acts with poetry or beauty. I have, in fact, always felt when reading erotica previously that none of the participants – neither the characters nor the authors – were actually enjoying themselves.

Pierre Louys, however, wrote in a blunt, and enthusiastic, fashion such that when Teresa says she will empty the narrator’s balls ‘with a twist of my asshole’ you believe it. Blessedly, there are no ridiculous extended metaphors, there is no obfuscation, suggestiveness or innuendo; everything is up front [or down below or round the back]; and it was really refreshing and, yes, occasionally, genuinely, hot. Yet before you all rush out to buy The She Devils I do feel as though I ought to say more about the content, to be specific about what you will encounter, for it really is not, I would imagine, for everyone. There is, to begin with, a lot of anal; more anal in fact than vaginal intercourse. There is oral performed on men and women; there is lesbianism and group sex; there is come swallowing and come swapping; there is coming on tits and there is coming on faces; there is ass to mouth and rimming; there is fingering; there is…well, honestly, pretty much everything that you could think of, including, erm, bestiality and, um, shit eating. No, really.

For me, it was fascinating to discover that a lot of the things that we think make us kinky, or broad-minded, now were, it seems, being performed by people over a hundred years ago [at least]. There is sometimes a temptation to believe that dirty sex is somehow a modern invention, that prior to our generation everyone was fucking missionary style while still wearing most of their clothes. Indeed, if someone had an interest in the most eyebrow-raising elements of The She Devils – the scat and the scenes in which come is shit from one woman’s arsehole into another’s mouth, etc – we would possibly attribute it to a jaded population raised on the accessibility of internet pornography. In fact, I have heard the claim, which is often framed as a joke, many times, that internet porn has raised the stakes, made conventional sex boring, and introduced a number of extreme acts into the public consciousness that were invented purely for the visual medium; and yet this book suggests that this is not the case.

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I have thus far given no real indication as to what The She Devils is about. I mean, it is primarily about fucking, of course, and I think you’ve got that, but there is, despite its plotlessness, a little more going on than that. The set up is of a young man, aged twenty, who narrates the action, and who lives next door to a family consisting of a mother and her three daughters. The young man is horny, and the family are prostitutes. He has each member of the family in turn, and occasionally has more than one of them at the same time. Two of the daughters are underage – being eleven and fourteen – but I don’t want to labour too much over the pedophiliac aspects of the story, or the incest for that matter. I do, however, think it is worth considering some of the characters individually. The narrator is particularly interesting because he is the only one with reservations. When one of the girls wants him to call her a whore, for example, he will not, not even to excite and please her. Likewise, when one of the girls wants to indulge in a rape fantasy he declines, for resistance ‘freezes’ him. Moreover, he frequently gives voice to his disgust in relation to some of the things the girls want or are prepared to do and criticises their mother for intentionally raising them to be experimental nymphomaniacs.

The narrator is therefore the novel’s moral heart. He passes judgement. The title itself is a moral judgement: the women are devils. It is difficult to know whether Louys was aware of his chauvinism in regard to this, whether it was, in fact, intentional or not. What I mean by this is that the women – who all absolutely enjoy sex, the filthier the better, and who, in fact, make all the demands and lay down all the rules – are being criticised, literally demonised, while the man who fucks them, well, isn’t, or certainly is not to the same extent. The narrator reviles the girls’ mother, rightly considering her behaviour towards her daughters, and yet this doesn’t stop him, and as such he is complicit in their abuse. It’s possible that Louys was making a point about weakness or hypocrisy, about how the sexual urge is so strong that moral objections can be compromised or dismissed, at least during the act, but I’m not so sure. It seems more likely that it is simply an example of the old double standard where sex is concerned.

However, I do feel as though the novel deals sensitively and intelligently with the subject of prostitution. As suggested previously, the daughters were trained from a very young age by their mother to be whores. They are indoctrinated in the same way the little girl is in Robbe-Grillet’s A Sentimental Novel, and, as with that novel, Louys writes about the harmful effects of what we are exposed and introduced to in childhood. So, yes, the girls enjoy sex, they enjoy beating themselves off too, but that does not mean that they haven’t been abused. Moreover, I found particularly moving a couple of the things that Charlotte – the eldest, and most sensitive, daughter – says about her trade. When discussing bestiality she states that a dog is less disgusting than a magistrate, and I think the intention was not to take a cheap shot at a certain profession, but to say something about men and the way they treat women, particularly whores. The animal, unlike the clients, doesn’t have any ill intention, it is not trying to hurt or exert power or dominance or control. Sex itself is not the problem, sex is not bad, it is the attitude that we sometimes bring to it that is. This is made even clearer when she says: ‘you think that things like that disgust us? No. It’s the men not the acts.’

THE CATHEDRAL OF MIST BY PAUL WILLEMS

Long before I finished The Cathedral of Mist I began to wonder how I was going to write about it, how, specifically, I could articulate the powerful emotional effect it had upon me. I saw myself floundering pathetically, like someone attempting to thread a needle in the dark. How many times, and how many ways, could I call Willems’ stories beautiful and moving? I had my notes of course, which were not as detailed or inspired as I would have hoped, but at least they were something to which I could cling. Yet, after closing the book I, unknowingly, put it down so that it was resting on the delete key on my keyboard. It was a fair few seconds before I understood why my words were quickly disappearing before my eyes. It was as though, after spending a short but disorientating period of time in Willems’ magical world, it was entirely possible, right even, that text can, of its own accord, begin to remove itself.

“The cathedral sparkled in the sunlight; every last detail of its architecture could be distinguished. I felt like we were seeing it reflected in one of those great mythical mirrors where winter has forever frozen its most beautiful memories.”

My intention was to begin this paragraph with some biographical information about Paul Willems, who I assume the readers of this review know as little about as I do, but a cursory look around the internet provides almost nothing of note. He was, I read, a French-speaking Belgian author and playwright who passed away in 1997. The Cathedral of Mist was, according to the publisher’s blurb, first released in 1983. It contains six short stories [and two essays, which I skipped], which run to roughly sixty small pages. I mention these apparently insignificant details because it seems incredible to me, first of all, that the stories are so recent, bearing in mind the timeless quality of them, and, secondly, how slight the whole thing is. Never has my love for something been built upon such feeble foundations.

In view of the scarcity of information regarding Willems, and the obscurity of his work, at least in English, it seems appropriate that secrecy features prominently in the collection. Indeed, although I didn’t keep score, it seemed to me that the words secret or secrets appear in each of the six stories, sometimes more than once. In Requiem for Bread, when the narrator, who I assumed was the author in all the stories, is told that bread screams when it is cut, he describes this as ‘one of those secrets of the world.’ Likewise, the Countess Kausala in An Archbishop’s Flight is said to be the keeper of ‘some very pleasant secrets.’ It is never revealed what exactly it is that the Countess knows, but this is not important of course. The frequent references to secrets are simply one part of an overriding atmosphere of romance, wonder and mystery. The world, as Willems sees, or experiences it, is one in which one can purchase a hat and subsequently find oneself in a bed, in the forest, as the snow begins to fall; it is a world where a man will invent his own language in order to communicate with his dead daughter; it is a world where there exists a cathedral made entirely out of mist; it is a world of epiphanies, if you know where, or how, to look.

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Moreover, this is evident not only in the basic action or interactions, but also in the way that Willems uses imagery to transform ordinary, commonplace things into something significant, dramatic, beautiful or magical. Clouds, for example, are described as ‘great grey fairies’, and bullets are like bees, but perhaps best of all is when it is said that waves speak two words: ‘the first dashes up on shore, toward us. The other withdraws, taking back what the first said.’ I don’t like to compare one author’s work to another, for I find these comparisons lazy, largely pointless and often tenuous, but I could not help but be reminded, first of all, of Bruno Schulz. In his story Tailors’ Dummies, Schulz calls his father the ‘fencing master of imagination’ and this phrase seems to me to go some way to capturing not only his own genius but Willems’ too. Yet, having said that, there is an economy of style, a restraint, in the Belgian’s work that is lacking in Schulz’s, and which is reminiscent of Tarjei Vesaas.

What I have written so far will, I imagine, give the impression that The Cathedral of Mist is rather like a children’s book of fables or fairytales; and that would not be entirely incorrect. However, there is also a core of sadness, a very adult kind of sadness, and a preoccupation with death. In Requiem for Bread the narrator’s cousin dies by falling out of a window, and each night, when he shuts his eyes, he sees her ‘falling without falling, spinning without moving, dying without dying.’ In Cherepish he is in Sofia with Hector, a middle aged man who has ‘nothing in his life.’ Hector yearns for his own epiphany, but ‘whatever is essential has passed him by.’ Finally, in The Palace of Emptiness, Victor, following the death of his father, beats his wife ‘like a child who hits his mother because it is raining’. She leaves him for a while, is happy, and then, at the end of the story, she returns, ‘submissive to the harm she would need from now on.’ Willems’ characters are, more often than not, suffering; and, for this reason, I would resist the description of the author as a ‘fantasist.’

THE TUTU BY LEON GENONCEAUX

‘You don’t ever talk to your friends about it?’ she asked. No, I replied, of course not. She – my partner at the time – laughed and said: you’re repressed. ‘We all go to the toilet; even girls, you know.’ Girls shit. I knew. I know. But did that mean it had to be a topic of conversation between us? Was I, in refusing to entertain the subject, denying her the level of intimacy that she deserved? Does every other couple comfortably share their excretory experiences? Maybe she was right: I am repressed. I don’t want to discuss bodily functions. Repressed, and probably a bad man. I remember someone once telling me about how her boyfriend would enter the bathroom and take a shit while she showered. Cool as you like. How often did this happen? Regularly, she said. Ah, I shouted, he waits until you are in the shower! He wants you to see and hear him shit, the dirty bastard! He wasn’t repressed. Certainly not. What a beautiful relationship they must have had.

“The only thing in the world that matters is us. Nobody will ever guess at the sublimities hidden within our hearts. Nobody else here on earth eats the brains from corpses and drinks the spittle of asthmatics. Let us act so that we might die in the satisfaction of having experienced, we alone, the True Sensation, of That Which Does Not Die.”

On the cover of the handsome Atlas Press edition of The Tutu it is stated that ‘it was written under the pseudonym of Princess Sappho, and is presumed to be the work of Leon Genonceaux.’ I do not often read the pages that precede a novel, but that ‘presumed’ tempted me, motivated me, to make one of my few exceptions via-a-vis Iain White’s introduction. I won’t retell the whole story here – or as much of the story as is known – but it is worth picking out some choice titbits. Genonceaux was responsible for publishing both Lautreamont and Rimbaud, the latter resulting in legal action against him. Marvellously, instead of facing up to the charge, he apparently went on the run. Later, he was charged again, on the grounds of publishing a book with an obscene cover, and again he fled. If someone is in fear of being arrested, is essentially in hiding, then putting one’s name to another obscene work – for The Tutu would almost certainly have been considered obscene – would not have been the wisest move. Hence: Princess Sappho.

However, as satisfyingly Borgesian as that all is, there’s more: some believe the book to be a hoax. On the first page of his introduction White writes that ‘it was published in the autumn of 1891’, but that ‘nearly all of the print run seems to have disappeared.’ Yet, in his final sentence, he asks: ‘what effect would it have had if it had indeed appeared in 1891, when it was written?’ Now, it is perfectly possible that I am misunderstanding his use of the term ‘published.’ To me that means that it made its way into the hands of the public, or at least had the potential to, if any of them had seen fit to part with money for it. Can something be published and not appear? Did White make a mistake? Or are we  – the readers – being played here? [If you have the answers to any of these questions, then please keep them to yourself, for I do not want to have to rewrite this review]. In any case, the confusion surrounding the book, and more importantly the sense of playfulness, is certainly in keeping with the contents.

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The Tutu is largely concerned with Mauri de Noirof, a dandyish sort who ‘always dressed with studied elegance.’ On the opening page he picks up a brick and wonders whether it ‘had a soul’ or whether it was ‘troubled by the rain.’ One understands immediately that he is something of an eccentric, a dreamer, a man perhaps at odds with his milieu. Indeed, his mother later says that she adores him because he is ‘not in the least like other men.’ And it is true, he isn’t, yet maybe not in the way that one is thinking; which is to say that he’s not a shy and sensitive little pup. The key to his character is, I think, evident in his chief ailment, which is his forgetfulness. Mauri’s bad memory – he orders cabs and makes appointments with women and keeps them waiting for hours – suggests to me, not that he has a serious medical condition, or that he is depressed, but that he is bored. It is as though he almost sleepwalks through life, barely allowing its events to trouble his consciousness. He says of himself that he is scared of life, but that didn’t come through to me. Alongside his boredom, I saw disgust and dissatisfaction, and it is the combination of all these feelings that, in my opinion, prompt his, let’s say, stomach-churning indulgences.

Of these indulgences, the most scandalous is his sexual interest in his mother, which is, moreover, reciprocated. Indeed, the book ends with Mauri bending her over a coffin, an act that is described as ‘impure and hideous.’ If one is bored, dissatisfied, and disgusted, then one might look to enliven one’s existence by doing something extreme, and, in an attempt to upset others, those others who disgust you, something shocking. Incest is, of course, considered unacceptable by society at large; and Mauri understands this, for numerous times he laments the law that prevents him from marrying the woman who brought him into the world. It is, therefore, the extremity, and shocking nature, of the act that makes it appealing, more than the physical charms of his mother. Furthermore, this act is likely to not only shock the people who disgust Mauri, but it sets him apart from them in his own mind, for it is something that they would never do. It is his being capable of it that makes him superior to them.

Yet not all of the unpleasantness contained within The Tutu is attributable to Mauri. In fact, the scene most likely to make the reader gag is when a man eats the tail of a dead, maggot-infested, cat. There is also – if you would like a list, either as warning or recommendation – piss, snot eating, vomit, shit [ah maybe now you see where I was going with my introduction], a woman breastfeeding snakes and another who is, um, tongued by a corpse. All of this leads one to wonder about the author’s intention. Was he trying to poke his finger in the ribs of people like me, the unapologetically repressed? Was he saying that this is life – bodily functions, death, decomposition – and one should not turn one’s head away from it? Certainly, I think that was part of it. But I also believe that he, in grotesquely humorous ways, wanted to urge his reader to make the most of their time on earth, which, as Mauri’s mother says, ‘ought to be an extraordinary sensation.’ This making the most of life, this experiencing of extraordinary sensations, need not mean drinking sputum and eating brains, of course, but rather not allowing oneself to, well, sleepwalk through it.

There is much more that I would like to discuss, especially the satire, but this review is overlong already, and the satire is rather obvious. Princess Sappho, or Leon Genonceaux, took pains to aim arrows at all of society’s pillars: marriage, religion, parent/child relationships, etc. Before concluding, however, I want to return to the idea that The Tutu might be a hoax. This theory holds up somewhat not only because of the obscure origins, and publication history, of the book, but also because it strikes one as modern in its construction. There is, for example, something of the surrealists automatic writing about the way the bizarre scenes seamlessly merge, so that one is not always sure where Mauri is or who he is talking to. There are, moreover, passages from other sources, including Maldoror; there is a conversation with God, a dream sequence, a picture, and a score. What one is left with, as one turns the final page, is less a feeling of disgust, although that is there too, but more an admiration for the author’s own joie de vivre, for his enjoyment in his creation is evident throughout.

LAST NIGHTS OF PARIS BY PHILIPPE SOUPAULT

Over the last twelve months I have become familiar with the night. I have been turned out, with increasing regularity, to flit between darkness and artificial light with erratic, moth-like movements. I have become part of the once-mysterious nocturnal world that previously I only dimly perceived through my bedroom window or through the filter of sleep. Shouts and chants. Screams and laughter. Now it is all at my shoulder, as I stop to lift heavy kisses to my lips on street corners or outside bars. At close quarters, the shadows, like a ripe chrysalis, split, to reveal the true forms inside. The spiders and rats. The murderers and whores. The drunks and drug dealers. This is my audience.

“The night clung to the trees, then, lying in wait in the shadowy spaces or crouching in the long, narrow and somber streets, it seemed to be spy upon us as if we were emerging from some dive. The least noise was a catastrophe, the least breath a great terror. We walked in the eternal mud.”

Philippe Soupault, one of the founders of surrealism, was, it is said, thrown out of the movement for the ‘isolated pursuit of the stupid literary adventure.’ One of these adventures is Les Derniers Nuits de Paris, or Last Nights of Paris in William Carlos Williams’ translation, which was published in 1928. It begins, after dark of course, with a chance meeting between the narrator and pale-faced Georgette, a local prostitute. As they walk around Paris they come to witness a peculiar, unsettling scene. A shriek is heard. A couple are said to ‘take to their heels.’ Someone commands: ‘Put out the lights.’ A procession. A woman, wearing a ‘smile of suffering’, is manhandled and ends up lying motionless, ‘almost in the gutter.’

If this sounds more like what you would expect from a noirish thriller, than a work of surrealism, what follows strengthens this impression. Consistent with the crime/detective genre, one of the novel’s principle concerns is unravelling the truth of what happened that night, with the narrator acting as chief investigator as he trails, makes contact with, and interviews the main players. Moreover, the pervading atmosphere is appropriately, one might say predictably, gloomy and threatening. The aforementioned scene, for example, takes place at midnight, which is, Soupault writes, ‘the hour of crimes.’ There is also a fair amount of rain, and abundant references to things like the ‘morose facades of nameless shops’ and streets that are ‘dark and full of bad smells’, and so on.

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Yet for me Last Nights of Paris is a counterfeit thriller, in that the resemblance to that genre is superficial only. There is a a mystery, as noted, but for Soupault it is an excuse to explore, or rather it is used as a basis to explore the ideas that form the philosophical and emotional core of the novel. One of these ideas or themes is the nature of chance. Throughout, the narrator bumps into various shady characters, all of whom turn out to be connected to each other and connected to the ‘strange drama’ he is, in a fashion, investigating. These coincidences give ‘the glamour of miracles’ to his existence. Chance can make one feel as though one is at the centre of something extraordinary, rather than something mundane, and yet requires nothing extraordinary from you in return.

Therefore, the reality of, the explanation behind, the events that he has witnessed, or been party to, is really not that important, or is certainly less important than his perception of these events. What I mean by this is that the focus, the goal, of crime fiction is usually to uncover the truth, but here it is to understand how things can become imbued with mystery or significance. Indeed, there is a sense that the narrator has created the mystery himself, that he allows his imagination to conjure, or to wander, as he himself wanders the Paris streets at night. As with the two leads in Witold Gombrowicz’s Cosmos, he sees meaning, imposes meaning, on things, that isn’t necessarily there independent of him, such as the taxi driver who ‘pushed his motor to the limit and seemed to comprehend the importance of his mission.’ Indeed, he admits of himself that the ‘cold, dull realm of actualities, arid and uncultivated as it is, has never tempted me.’

His greatest accomplice in this endeavour to create mystery, and consequently excitement and romance, is the night. Take Georgette as an example. When he sees her in the daytime she is ‘no longer the same.’ She is revealed to be an ‘uninspired woman, commonplace and hardy.’ Only at night is she the ‘queen of mystery’; her charm ‘did not become real until she withdrew from the light and entered obscurity.’ The night, like chance or coincidence, and like Paris too, has the power to transfigure. Night, the ‘eternal mud.’ Night, my quixotic friend, my guardian, my benefactor. Perhaps all that I have seen and heard, and all that we have done together, these last twelve months has been an illusion, but, if so, I am thankful for that, for the days have been so cruel and unwelcoming.